Quickly shedding its trope-laden coming-of-age facade in favor of something unique and kinetic, Dope tells the tale of young Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his Yo! MTV Raps-era obsessed compatriots in the days leading up to their high school graduation. Intelligent and branded as geeks by the wannabe gangsters that harass them, the trio finds unfailing solace in each others’ company, playing music as part of their own punk band when Malcolm isn’t stressing out over his Harvard admissions application. When an innocuous run-in with a local drug dealer procures an invitation to an ill-fated party, the friends’ collective resolve and resourcefulness are tested as they’re forced to embark upon an increasingly life-threatening endeavor.
On paper, Dope reads as a quirky, seriocomic take on the typical South Central L.A. formula – multiple adolescents struggle to break the shackles of impoverished conformity to make something of themselves because fuck labels. It’s as much a commentary on the importance of perseverance amid this adversity as it is an erratic, more genre-specific yarn emulative of obvious ’80s inspirations, and for as much as it succeeds in capitalizing on this dual personality, it also suffers from a bit of an identity crisis.
In flip-flopping between its tonally disparate components, it becomes clear that Dope‘s aesthetic charm and sensibilities are better suited for something entirely comedic, of which it’s decidedly not. As it occasionally veers into more heavy-handed territory, I couldn’t help but wonder why Famuyiwa couldn’t employ the circumstantially relevant setting in a purely narrative manner, forgoing attempted thematic heft in favor of telling a breezy and engaging story. Breezy it is and remains, augmented by a requisite sense of urgency to coincide with Malcolm’s predicament, however a ball-dropping resolution fails to evoke what you never thought it was trying to in the first place.
Imbued with a high-energy sense of self that’s unfortunately hamstrung by needlessly weighty creative choices, Dope is more enjoyable than not on the basis of its unique and frequently compelling core narrative. Stellar performances benchmark this offbeat, musically-inclined and palpably quirky affair, Famuyiwa’s adherence to setting specific tropes benefiting situational elements more than the grim ’90s-era dramatic fare Dope harkens back to. It’s admittedly more enjoyable than not by a considerable margin, it’s just a shame that Famuyiwa’s inclination to employ the angle he does drags the film down considerably on the basis of execution.